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King Solomon’s dedication speech for the Temple: A closer look at where God lives

Humans live in houses, birds live in nests, lions live in dens. Where does God live? A ‘foggy’ hypothesis lies hidden in this week’s infrequently read haftarah. Moshe Benovitz, Professor of Talmud and Jewish Law at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, considers different places in the Bible where God’s dwelling place is discussed.

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We seldom read the haftarah of Parashat Pekudei, because Pekudei usually falls out on one of the four special Sabbaths of Adar, during which a special reading is added, and a special haftarah is read.

This week we will read this beautiful haftarah, which describes the dedication of the first Temple in the days of King Solomon. In his speech at the dedication ceremony, Solomon refers to God’s dwelling place in three different ways, and they do not accord with one another. He opens his speech with the words “The Lord has said he would dwell in fog” (I Kings 8:12), but immediately adds “I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever” (8:13).

Further on in the dedication speech, in a verse not included in the haftarah, Solomon admits that God will not dwell in the Temple that he has built: “But is it true that God dwells on earth? Behold, the heavens and the heavens of the heavens are unable to contain You, how much less this house which I have built!” (I Kings 8:27).

So where is God? In the fog, in the Temple, or in the heavens and heavens of heavens, which themselves are too small for him? God said he would well in fog; even so, Solomon built him a Temple. But then he says that God does not live on earth at all, but in heaven, and no house on earth can contain him.

It seems to me that if God said he would dwell in fog, he dwells in fog. I would like to suggest that God has dwelt in fog for all eternity; he lives in the universe, on earth and in and space, not in any tabernacle or temple, nor in the celestial heavens and heavens of heavens. The fog in nature symbolizes the fact that the Lord, God of Israel, creator of earth and sky, is imminent rather than transcendent. He lives right here with us in nature and is not aloof from the universe he created.

In Genesis chapter 1 verse 2 we read that even as God was creating the world there was “darkness on the surface of the abyss, and the spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters”. If the terms “surface of the abyss” and “surface of the waters” are referring to the same thing, then the darkness covering the abyss should be identified with the Spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters – a fog or mist.

A similar conception is found in Genesis (2:2), according to which on the day the Lord God created the earth and sky no vegetation grew, “because the Lord God had not yet sent rain down onto the earth, and there was no one to work the ground”. It is surprising, therefore, that the very next verse states “but there went up a mist from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground”.

What is the nature of this mist, and what was its purpose? We were just told that there was no need for rain to water the earth, so why was there a need for a mist to water the ground? It seems clear that this mist is the same as the previously mentioned “darkness” and “Spirit of God” hovering. This watering mist is the divine presence, which rises from the earth and descends onto the surface of the earth once again to water it, like a misty fog arising from the earth’s waters and hovering over them.

Darkness, cloud, and fog represent the divine abode during the revelation at Mount Sinai as well. When Solomon says: “The Lord has said he would dwell in fog. I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever” (I Kings 8:12-13), he means: Although clearly God has expressed his interest in dwelling in a mist in the midst of nature, I had the audacity to build him a house. But this was a mistake: the house that I built certainly cannot house the Lord. (8:27).

Solomon’s words echo the words of Nathan the prophet to King David, when David sought to build a Temple for God: “Thus says the Lord: Would you build a house for me to dwell in? I have never dwelt in a house from the day I took the children of Israel out of Egypt until this day. I have always wandered from tent to tabernacle. In all my wanderings among the children of Israel, have I ever said to any of the judges of Israel whom I appointed to shepherd my people Israel, saying: Why have you not built me a house of cedar wood?…” (II Samuel 7:5-7). The Lord is everywhere. He wanders from tent to tabernacle. He never asked for a house of cedar wood.

It is true that Nathan goes on to grant permission to David’s son Solomon to build him a house, but this contradicts Nathan’s basic message: God wanders about his world. He hovers. A permanent residence simply does not suit him.

Solomon mentions this dialogue between the prophet Nathan and King David in the course of his speech, but only the second part, in which God grants Solomon, not David, permission to build a Temple. He leaves out the first part, in which God says a temple is inappropriate.

Four hundred and fifty years after Solomon dedicated the first Temple, and a few decades after it was destroyed, Cyrus King of Persia gave permission to Babylonian Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple, even offering to finance the construction of the Second Temple.

One of the prophets, whose prophecies are collected at the end of the book of Isaiah, expresses dismay at this prospect in God’s name: “Thus says the Lord: The heavens are my throne, and the earth my footstool. What house can you possibly build for me? What resting place for me?” (Isaiah 66:1). The prophet’s words were heeded by the people, who built an altar on Mount Moriah, but not a Temple. This view prevailed until the prophet Haggai came along and urged the people to build a house for the Lord.

It seems that the question of whether God should have a house divides the Jewish people to this day; hence divergent views on the importance of the Temple mount, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the Kotel as the vestige of a home for the divine presence. But the Lord said he would dwell in a fog. May we seek him and find him there.

Shavua Tov from Schechter.

Moshe Benovitz is Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He is the author of Kol Nidre: Studies in the Development of Rabbinic Votive Institutions (Atlanta 1998) and several volumes of comprehensive critical commentary on sections of the Talmud, as well as numerous scholarly articles on various aspects of Talmudic scholarship and rabbinic history, including oaths and vows, liturgy, and Jewish festivals.

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